Having a strong mentor during your first few years as a librarian can provide a safety net of advice, encouragement, and caution for a newly minted professional. Such a relationship would be even better if it began during LIS education. This would also serve to diminish the perceived divide between practice and library schools. In fact, mentoring up-and-coming professionals, those who will inherit the changed, and changing, landscape of libraries, should be one of the values of librarianship.
Is it worthwhile to formalize this process on both sides of practice and LIS? Could students be aligned with practicing librarians within their area of interest early on and continue to rely on them throughout the coursework, job search, and first hire? Such initiatives could be local, within a school, or could even stretch worldwide, enhanced by technologies such as Skype. Let’s look at some of the benefits of mentoring.
The value of mentoring
Mentors can advise new librarians on all aspects of the profession, including tips for getting along with coworkers, the ins and outs of dealing with library administrators, and the like. The online world offers a new twist. While much is gained by participating in the ubiquitous social networks, there are pitfalls as well. A professional’s expressions are now open for the world to read, hear, or view. Because anyone tweeting, blogging, or Facebooking can share their thoughts so easily and post sometimes without thought, a strong mentor who guides students or new grads in the ways of online life could help make or break a career.
I was lucky in my years at the public library to have had several mentors who pushed, prodded, and helped prioritize things for me as I discovered technology, blogging, and the social web. As I moved into teaching, I became a de facto mentor for many of our new hires or for those interested in going to library school. I found playing both roles, mentee and mentor, to be rewarding. They contrasted with my own master’s program in the 1990s, which afforded little opportunity for finding a mentor. Nor do I recall much mention of the process or the role a mentor could play in one’s professional life.
Mentoring is different from the type of advising many LIS students receive, which is usually of the “Which classes should I take next?” variety. Yes, it is possible to slide through a library program without speaking more than a few words to an advisor, but quality advising can reach the level of mentoring and improve the educational experience.
Benefits for profs
It is easy to pay lip service to “networking opportunities” such as receptions, open houses, and other social events during library school, but how many true mentor relationships are established there? It takes a certain type of student—extroverted for sure—and a certain type of mentor—one who has the time, patience, and motivation to serve. In a profession that has historically attracted introverts, this relationship is indeed hard to form. In addition, many librarians are doing more work than ever before bowing to economic pressures, and it becomes a perfect storm of “no time, too shy.”
What of library school professors? Joe Hardenbrook offered some advice about library school at his Library Dude blog: “Get a mentor! Someone who is a working librarian. Not a library school professor who hasn’t worked in libraries for 20 years.” It’s a criticism I’ve heard before—LIS professors are out of touch with true practice. Maybe the mentoring should go both ways. Profs should get on the front lines every so often with the person they’re mentoring—that way, both learn. The same could be said for participation online. Those not familiar with social sites might learn from their students. In turn, a discussion about ethics and values in one’s online life might prevent embarrassment or worse.
Administrators could play a role as well. As such, students and new grads learn not only on the front line but from behind the scenes, too. That’s where funding issues come into play, where you learn how the tough decisions are made, and where you see the mandate administrators always have to balance cost with customer service and politics. It’s easy for front-line staff to criticize, but it’s a different thing altogether when they learn what goes on in admin. The shape of this process is circular: students learning the front lines and the admin side, admin renewing themselves on the front line, and LIS profs also relearning (or learning) front-line skills and perhaps refreshing on the admin side.
Most of the time when we hear about mentoring in librarianship, the word informal is attached. Could a formalized process work, or is mentoring a more organic thing that grows from like-mindedness and a comfort built over time? Let’s start creating these connections for students (and for profs and administrators) and move to formalize the process.